Senior Jim Abbott recorded his first career hat trick, and five other players scored for the Wildcats, as No. 3 New Hampshire defeated Massachusetts-Lowell, 8-4, in Game 1 of the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series between the two teams.

Top-seeded New Hampshire (22-7-6) raced out to leads of 2-0 and 5-1, only to see the River Hawks (11-19-5) come back to make it a 5-3 game after two periods.

The Wildcats iced the game in the third, outscoring UMass-Lowell 3-1 in the final period, including junior Steve Saviano’s sixth of the season with six seconds left to close out the scoring. Saviano also added two assists on the night to pace the UNH attack.

Three of the Wildcats’ goals were scored on delayed penalties.

“I’m pleased with the win,” said New Hampshire coach Dick Umile. “Any time that you can get the first win in a series is a good start. We generated some good scoring opportunities. The goals we gave up were the result of some bad defensive breakdowns.

“We’ll hopefully do a better job on Saturday night.”

While New Hampshire came into the tournament enjoying its second consecutive Hockey East regular season title, it was the River Hawks who came out firing on all cylinders in the early going, outshooting UNH 6-1 at one point. For the game, UMass-Lowell outshot New Hampshire, 29-27, but some costly defensive breakdowns led to a series of goals on odd-man rushes throughout the night by the Wildcats.

“I thought that UNH was the much better team from the get-go,” said UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “They created a lot of odd-number rushes. It’s a tough game to play when you have to come back from such a big lead.”

Leading scorer Lanny Gare got things started for the Wildcats at 10:29 of the first period. On a delayed penalty, the senior picked up a loose puck in the right corner, walked in alone, and waited for UMass-Lowell goaltender Dominic Smart to go down before sending the puck high in the back of the net for a 1-0 UNH lead.

New Hampshire’s second goal was the result of some great efforts on the part of the Wildcats’ fourth line, culminating with defenseman Mike Lubesnick’s perfect pass to Tim Horst at the doorstep, for his fifth of the season at 18:12. After falling behind early in the shots on goal category, UNH ended the first period outshooting the River Hawks, 10-8.

Things went from bad to worse for UMass-Lowell at the start of the second period.

Colin Hemingway took control of a loose puck to the right of Smart, and much like linemate Gare earlier, waltzed in untouched and put the puck behind Smart from a difficult angle to give UNH a 3-0 lead just 17 seconds into the middle frame.

Abbott’s first made it 4-0.

“Our team didn’t have much mental energy tonight. This was clearly one of our worst efforts,” said MacDonald.

Later in the second period, it looked like lady luck was going to be on the side of the Wildcats the entire night, as defenseman Garrett Stafford saved a sure River Hawk goal by diving and swiping away the puck as it lay directly on the crease. However, leading scorer Ed McGrane buried the rebound past a sprawled Mike Ayers to get the ‘Hawks on the board. With the goal (McGrane’s 41st point of the year), McGrane became the first UML player to record over 40 points in a season since 1996-1997.

Abbott scored his second goal off a three-on-one breakout by the Wildcats, making a nice move in front and putting the puck through the five hole to make it a 5-1 UNH advantage.

“It was awesome. It felt great. It felt like an empty-netter,” said Abbott of his second goal of the night. “It’s a great way to start the series.”

Said Umile, “Jimmy can bust things open. He’s proven that over his four years here.”

Fourth-line winger Geoff Schomogyi broke a personal 20-game scoreless streak when he found himself all alone in front, sending the puck high over Ayers at 17:03 to make it 5-2 UNH. It was Schomogyi’s first goal since October 26th.

And when senior Mark Concannon converted a feed from Jerramie Domish less than three minutes later to make it 5-3, UMass-Lowell was right back in it, much to the delight of the spirited band of RiverHawk fans who ventured up to Durham.

“Coach was a little disappointed after that, after being up 5-1. I was too,” said Gare. “If we want to be a Frozen Four team, we can’t make pee-wee mistakes like we did tonight.”

As had happened on two other occasions earlier, however, a UNH forward was allowed to skate in alone to start the third period, and once again, the ‘Hawks were made to pay.

Preston Callander picked up a loose puck in front of Smart, raced in, and sent it what looked to be his 10th goal of the season. The scoring was later changed to Abbott, who was in tight close to the net.

Sean Collins added his 18th for UNH, and Steve Slonina scored for UML.

With the victory, New Hampshire can close out the quarterfinal series with a win on Saturday night (7 p.m.).

“Hopefully, we’re one step closer to Boston,” said Umile. “But we’ve got a ways to go.”